11 Ways to become a successful freelancer
Back in 2015, approximately 15 years after I started my professional career, I finally plucked up the courage to walk away from the security of a full time, well paid job as a UX / UI Digital Designer and Front End Developer within a large, successful, multinational corporate company, which came with tonnes of benefits for both me and my family, to go it alone in the big bad world and finally start my own business. Even with its ups and downs, it’s been the best decision I have ever made. I won’t lie, I have made mistakes and learnt a lot along the way, and even thought about giving up and going back to the easy life and security of a normal full time job on multiple occasions, so I thought I would share some of my honest advice, based on my own experiences, to help other people thinking of also making this huge life changing decision to start my own web and app design business.
1. Make sure you’re financially secure
One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give is to make sure you’re as financially secure as possible before leaving the security of your full time job to go off freelancing. If you leave your full time job with debts and credit cards hanging over your head, and no savings to back you up, then you’re running the risk of getting yourself into debt. When I decided to make the leap, I had the mortgage and family to think of, therefore I wanted to make sure I had at least 6 months worth of mortgage payments sitting in the bank, plus extra for bills, so no matter what happened, I had comfort in knowing that we would be safe for at least 6 months. I can’t emphasis how scary is when when you walk out those office doors on the last day of your full time job, and the reality hits that you no longer have any steady income. If you walk out knowing you have enough of a buffer to keep you going for at least 6 months while you’re setting everything up and getting new work in, then it’s one thing less thing to worry about while you focus on getting everything for your business else set up. Although it takes a LONG time to get 6 months of bills payments into savings, having this sort of buffer give you a good amount of time to get an idea of whether you’ll succeed or fail, or if you even enjoy freelancing. Also, if you have money put aside specifically for you to try, then its just a case of really focussing on getting things working. If after a few months things don’t look like they’re going to work out, then you have a few months to find a new job or try contracting before your money runs out.
2. Find an accountant and keep records of your earnings
Before you do anything, get yourself a good accountant. I cannot stress this enough. Even if you end up only earning £1, or end up earning £100,000, you’ll need an accountant to make sure your tax return is completed correctly, and that any tax you owe is paid. Make sure you get a rough figure from your accountant on how much tax you should expect to pay, and KEEP THAT MONEY SEPARATE! I cannot count the amount of freelancers I have spoken to in the past who spent everything they earned, then got their tax bill through and couldn’t afford to pay it. Do not get into that situation. Having a good accountant will help stop that happening and will advise you on your finances whenever you have a question, and will stop your business from dissolving or you having to get some sort of debt management or loan to pay back your tax. Make sure you keep a record of all your earnings, expenses and any money coming in and out of your bank account which relates to your business. Set up a separate bank account even if you are just a sole trader, where all money that is to do with what you earn, and what is spent on your business, is separate from your own personal spend. This will make your bookkeeping much simpler. Easy Accountancy provide a good spreadsheet for both limited companies and sole traders which gives you a great insight on tax you owe, your turnover and expenses. You can download the spreadsheets from their website.
3. Create your brand
Once those boring formality bits have been been put into place, then the fun stuff starts. Your brand will be the first impression all your potential clients will see and judge you upon. It’s also a great way to show what you can do! Think of a name for your business/brand, create a professional looking logo logo, imagine it being used on print and web, or even a sign outside the office you will be working out of in a year’s time! If you’re hoping to expand into a more agency business, then a generic name could work better, however if you’d prefer to go with the personal touch, using your own name as your brand would work well. Create a set of beautiful professional business cards which you can give out and keep some on you all the time as you’ll never know when you will be able to give them to friends and family to pass around. Think of something easy to remember, and easy to spell – make it as easy as possible for people to search for, and find you.
4. Set up your website
Your website is likely to be one of the first things your potential clients look at and will use to judge whether you are able to offer what they’re looking for, or if they’ll go elsewhere. First impressions really do count. Again, think about the type of clients you’re trying to attract, and build your website based on that specific target audience. Your website should not only tell potential clients about you, what you can do, and show off work, but it should also convey what you’re able to achieve. If you’re able to, design and build your website yourself and show off your skills and creativity. If you can’t, get a professional to design and build one for you. Provide great examples of client work you have done. One thing to remember is, less is more, only show your best work. Showing off only 5 amazing projects will say more to your prospective clients than 10 average pieces. For each project, do a good writeup about what was required, how you went about creating the designs, what did you achieve the clients goals, and add testimonials to validate your work. If you’re starting out completely from scratch and you don’t have any work yet, simply create some projects yourself showing off what you can do, and provide write-ups on those. Once you start attracting clients and creating client projects, you can gradually add these to your portfolio instead. Along with providing proof of your skills, create a familiarity before your clients have even spoken to you simply by adding a photo of yourself so clients can see who they’re going to be working with. Add some information about you, what you specialise in and how you can solve their problem. Integrate your website with various social media pages, set up a Facebook page, twitter page, instagram, behance, dribbble, etc. which are not only great for SEO purposes, but perfect for reaching out to people on a more personal level.
5. Choose a CRM system
When building your website, it might be worth thinking about a CRM system to use to integrate with. There are many to choose from, such as Zoho, Active Campaign, Sales Force, Sage etc which can help you to keep track of your leads. A CRM system may seem a bit like overkill at first, and email is ok to start with, but you will soon lose track of things when it gets busy and having a good CRM system in place will help more than you’d realise.
6. Set up a good invoicing platform
Implementing a good invoicing system from the start, I’ve found, is really important and helps you out when you’re busy. I started by using a system called Wave, which is completely free. It links to your bank account giving you read only access to your balance, imports all transactions, provides clarity on expenses, what invoices are due or overdue and even automatically chases payments for you. You can pull off reports for your accountant, and even invite your accountant to be a collaborator, so they can log on and view your accounts at anytime.
Since the business has grown and I’m having to do more complex accounting, I have moved onto QuickBooks Online to manage my accounts, which provides many more accounting functionalities to manage things like corporation tax, VAT returns and even payroll. You can send out invoices and estimates to your clients, monitor their status, and manage your accounts remotely by using their easy to use mobile and tablet apps.
7. Set up good project, task management and time keeping tools
You’ll quickly learn that being a freelancer isn’t all about just doing the work, it involves a LOT of project and time management to be successful. There are various tools out there to help you, and trust me I’ve used my fair share, but my favourites which I use religiously are Asana for project and task management along with the integration of Hubstaff to track time & work productivity on my Asana tasks, and Calendly for scheduling client calls and meetings. I also keep a detailed spreadsheet of my work in progress and schedule work into my calendar, blocking the time out specifically for projects. Once you have booked that time in, do your best to stick to it and you’ll never run the risk of missing deadlines. Another thing to factor in is your admin time. You’ll need to set aside time to spend on updating your website with new projects, writing proposals, invoicing, updating your accounts, and responding to emails and enquiries. I factor in an hour a day first thing to clear down any outstanding admin before starting any project work. This way I can come into the office with a clear head, and get the admin done nice and quickly. This also brings me onto my next point …
8. Create a good set of documentation
I really cannot emphasis how important it is to get a good set of documentation together, from proposal documents, to terms and conditions. If you have a good set of documents set up, it’ll take no time to put together quotes and proposals, just make sure you outline as specifically as possible what you will deliver and when. Having a good set of documentation not only reduces the risk of the dreaded scope creep, but it shows you are professional in what you do. It’ll help your client to understand exactly what they will get for the price quoted, and will help you to understand exactly what the client wants. Make sure the client reads your documentation thoroughly before accepting the proposal, and tailor it to each individual project. You can download template proposal documents online so you don’t have to worry about creating one from scratch.
9. Create a good set of terms and conditions
To begin with, just a simple set of terms and conditions outlining what you deliver, and how you work, is ideal. Include things like what deposit you charge, when payments are due, ownership of files upon completion, your working hours and rates, and how you work. If you can, go down the route of paying for a set of terms and conditions approved by a legal team. There are plenty of online providers who provide a generic set tweaked for your business which you can download and use. It may seem like a crazy thing to pay for, but they really are a necessary evil for protecting you and your business.
10. How much should you charge?
This is quite a grey area. You don’t want to undercharge and ultimately feel taken advantage of, but at the same time you can end up overcharging and pricing yourself out of the market. Ideally you need to find the sweet spot which reflects your personal skills and what makes you feel valued whilst being realistic with current market rates. Look at what the going rate is for people with a similar skillset and experience as you and be completely honest with yourself with what you can do and where you fall within the freelancing sector. If you’re just starting out and don’t have much in the way of client recommendations or experience to get you repeat work, you need to be realistic in how you price for jobs. Some of the very first websites I did when I was first starting out as a freelancer were unbelievably cheap, and the end product and time spend was worth way more than what the client paid, but having the experience and feedback from a client is invaluable in getting more business, and eventually you can increase your prices.
11. Find and retain customers!
Once you’ve got all your preparations done, all you need to do is get your name out there! Promote yourself on various freelancer directory websites such as freelancer uk, people per hour, UpWork etc which will not only provide promotion and visibility of you as an available freelancer, but will also provide you with opportunities to bid for work and get a good reputation. If you’re happy to, spend some money setting up google adwords to help direct traffic to your website. If you don’t want to spend money just yet, you can do some research and email local businesses, post on social media pages or create websites for your friends / family to generate referrals through word of mouth. Once you start getting jobs in, things will grow organically for you if you do a good job. If your clients are impressed, they’ll keep coming back for more work and will refer you to their friends / family and colleagues. As tempting as it is to constantly seek out new business, remember how important to keep your current clients happy, as nothing is more valuable to a prospective client than a good recommendation from someone they trust.
It takes a LOT of work, time and dedication to become successful freelancing. As much as people think being your own boss is the easy option compared to a full time job, but I’m afraid it’s not. To be successful you need to expect to work long days and into the early hours of the morning to meet deadlines, and have your business consume your thoughts in every waking (and sleeping!) hour of your life. You’re no longer just a designer or developer doing what you love best, you’re now aa project manager, a bookkeeper, a salesman/woman, an office administrator and a marketing guy/girl. Some days I look back and remember how “easy” being employed was in relation to being self employed. You’d go in, get your day done, then go home and relax ready to go in and do it all again the next day. But then I also remember how boring and restricting full time work can be, and how you’re bound by corporate red tape, rather than having the creative freedom to make your own decisions and build your own confidence and skills in what you know by learning from your mistakes.
You’ll be pushed to your limits, be forced to learn new technologies and be taken out your comfort zone on a regular basis, yet even with all the stresses (and grey hairs), I know in my heart that running my own business was the best decision for me and my family, and I would certainly encourage anyone thinking about making that leap of faith to give it a go, but be prepared to work extremely long and hard to get to where you want to be!